Who Is Afraid of Race?

"There is a cost to advancing caste as the preeminent analytic in place of race—we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of anti-Blackness. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.

PANASHE CHIGUMADZI

Captives in chains after a 1904 uprising in what was then called German South-West Africa turned into a war of annihilation waged by German troops against the Herero and Nama peoples. (Ullstein Bild/Getty)

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) marked its eighth week as a New York Times bestseller the same week that Trump publicly instructed a white militia group to “stand back and stand by” in the event of his electoral loss. This timing was uncanny. Caste is animated by the specter of 2042—the year that white Americans are predicted to become a racial minority in the United States.

A critical question lies at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

“I think what we’re looking at is South Africa,” Wilkerson tells civil rights historian Taylor Branch as they consider 2042 and the frightening idea of a white racial minority dominating a multiracial majority. Branch agrees with the South Africa comparison, adding, “They are more out front with their racism than here.” After the U.S. Civil War over slavery, the project of Reconstruction—meant to incorporate formerly enslaved Black people as full citizens—failed, largely due to white “backlash.” Historian Rayford Logan named this post-Reconstruction era—marked by Black lynchings, poverty, and disenfranchisement—the “nadir of [American] race relations.” Building on this nomenclature, Wilkerson notes that the Trumpian “backlash” to the Obama presidency has led many Black historians to identify our current moment as the “Second Nadir.”

In this Nadir, a world of wounds most recently laid bare by George Floyd’s lynching, Wilkerson anchors her book’s thesis—that caste is more helpful than race when it comes to explaining our racial “discontents”—in a somatic analogy: “Caste is the bones, race the skin.” In other words, Wilkerson contends that race is only skin-deep. If we want to get to the bone of the matter—the systemic oppression that continues to plague African Americans—we can only do so by naming and foregrounding caste. The book is then propelled across historical scenes from the world’s three dominant caste systems—the United States, India, and Germany—arguing that a more thorough understanding of the root of African American’s afflictions necessitates jettisoning race as the preeminent analytic in favor of caste."

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